16. La Mia Cantante

I can’t believe it. He’s actually annoyed with me. Good deeds never go unpunished.

My expression appeared in my sister’s mind as we were rapidly ushered down the same ornate hallway that I’d come down only—had it even been twelve hours ago? In Alice’s memory of the moment that she’d joined us in the alleyway, my jaw was tensed, my lips pursed, and my brow furrowed. The same expression had apparently also crossed my face a moment before when I’d begun to lunge at the hulking Felix, only to be stopped by Alice’s sharp rebuke.

“Sorry,” I muttered, quietly enough that Bella wouldn’t hear. “I’m not annoyed. Just”—a glance down at Bella’s trembling form—“worried.”

Worried didn’t cover it. In fact, I couldn’t think of any word I knew that quite captured what it felt like to be standing in this foreboding hall with Bella in my arms.

Bella. My Bella was in my arms.

Every move she made left an echo of her body on my muscles. Through no conscious thought of my own, my body wanted to stay around her, to subsume her if it could. When she moved even a millimeter further from me, my body closed the gap.

She was thinner than when I had left her, and her hair was almost four inches longer. Her hips, too, had grown even just a fraction of an inch wider. All these things reminded me of her exquisite humanness, the truly living life that I loved the most about her.

The life that was about to be taken away.

It had taken only an instant for me to be plunged from the height of Heaven into Hell itself. I recalled speaking calmly to Demetri and Felix as we stood in the alleyway, but Alice’s memory revealed a constant growl that I had somehow not noticed myself making. It hadn’t been until Jane appeared in the alley that I’d dropped my offense and resigned myself to going with them. In my sister’s memory I saw the defeated look in my own eyes as we all fell in line behind the tiny, light-haired nightmare.

Now it was Jane, hand-in-hand with her brother, who slid open the door to the chamber I had seen so recently before. Bella’s heartbeat sped as we entered, and I pressed my lips to the crown of her head once more. I was unable to keep myself from touching her, even as a part of my mind questioned why she was even here. For even if there had been a mistake, even if she was simply “into extreme sports” as my sister had explained, wasn’t Bella’s world still better off without me? Surely in the time we had been apart she would have lived a life I couldn’t offer her, a life with living friends.

And now she had once again come to my aid, and within mere seconds of being reunited with her, I had once again put her life in serious jeopardy.

Easy, Edward, came Alice’s forceful thought.

I realized that I was growling.

“Jane, dear one, you’ve returned!”

The voice was unnaturally jovial, and I was reminded of hearing it through Carlisle’s memories—Aro’s ebullience seen through the filter of my father’s disgust. As Aro stood from his chair and floated toward us, a wide smile on his face, I felt Bella pull away just a fraction, as though she were drawn to him. I tightened my grip as Alice saw a hazy image of Bella touching Aro’s strangely wizened face.

Aro surprised both me and Alice by kissing Jane on the lips before stepping back.

“Yes, Master. I brought him back alive, just as you wished.” Jane smiled in my direction, and the image of Felix tearing my head off in the alleyway was accompanied by a deep pang of regret.

“Ah Jane, you are such a comfort to me,” Aro sighed before turning his gaze on the rest of us. His smile became even wider as his eyes landed on Alice, who was standing very uncharacteristically still.

Two, he thought, and his voice took on an overly joyous tone: “And Alice and Bella, too! This is a happy surprise! Wonderful! Felix, be a dear and tell my brothers about our company. I’m sure they wouldn’t want to miss this.”

“Yes, Master.” And Felix was gone.

“You see, Edward? What did I tell you? Aren’t you glad that I didn’t give you what you wanted yesterday?”

“Yes, I am,” I replied, even as I felt my lip curl over my teeth.

He turned toward Alice, sighing. “I love a happy ending. They are so rare. But I want the whole story. How did this happen? Alice? Your brother seemed to think you infallible, but apparently there was some mistake.” I cringed as he recalled the resolute death wish he had detected earlier.

Alice beamed at him, even as I caught her patronizing thought: One of these days you’re going to actually understand how this works. “Oh I’m far from infallible,” she trilled. “As you can see today, I cause problems as often as I cure them.” With a little help from people who are prone to taking drastic measures. Her image of me stepping out into the sunlight appeared briefly in her mind.

I rolled my eyes.

“You’re too modest,” Aro answered, still smiling. “I’ve seen some of your more amazing exploits, and I must admit I’ve never observed anything like your talent. Wonderful!” Jasper appeared in his mind—not even my memory, but Alice’s, gleaned from her by me and now the property of the being who would decide all our fates. Aro recalled quickly Jasper and Alice’s cross-continental journey from the diner in Philadelphia to our family’s secluded home in the Canadian Rockies. How surely she’d tracked us, using only her image of what we were up to—even without having met us.

Aro’s eyes flickered briefly to Demetri and then back to Alice.

My sister frowned. Edward, what are you not telling me?

He caught her intent gaze, even brief as it was. “I’m sorry,” he offered, sounding perfectly cordial. “We haven’t been introduced properly at all, have we? It’s just that I feel like I know you already, and I tend to get ahead of myself. Your brother introduced us yesterday, in a peculiar way. You see, I share some of your brother’s talent, only I am limited in a way that he is not.”

Only Aro would describe his gift as limited. “And also exponentially more powerful,” I responded. “Aro needs physical contact to hear your thoughts, but he hears much more than I do. You know I can only hear what’s passing through your head in the moment. Aro hears every thought your mind has ever had.”

Alice’s eyebrows shot up, and her thoughts swiftly became a jumbled mess. Every thought… The idea seemed to fill her with hope. She recalled waking up to her thirst in the dark woods outside a building, which, I was startled to realize, was no longer the indistinct “asylum” I had seen ever since James had tortured Bella with his story of my sister’s change, but instead a real building, flickering back and forth between a modern, bustling hospital, with SUVs its parking lot to an imagined version, smaller, and flanked by packed dirt roads in the twentieth century. A sign, which also vacillated back and forth between a carved wooden version with chipping paint and a professional, modern version, identified the building as “Mississippi State Hospital.”

My sister knew considerably more about her past than she had when I’d last seen her. A puzzled frown crossed my face, which Aro did not miss.

“But to be able to hear from a distance,” he sighed, gesturing to my changed expression. “That would be so convenient.” For the briefest of moments I saw myself again in his mind, cloaked in black, with Alice similarly attired at my side. The image disappeared however, as something else caught his attention.

Ah, the others.

I heard Aro’s thought before he even glanced away from us, and the whole room seemed to come to attention as the other two brothers entered. Instinctively, my arms tightened around Bella’s torso. Her heart, which seemed to have briefly accustomed itself to its level of stress began to race once more, its rapid thrumming reverberating in the otherwise quiet chamber. I ran my hand gently down the back of Bella’s neck, feeling the smooth hairs of her skin slide beneath my fingertips and absorbing a little of the warmth I had missed so sorely.

“Marcus, Caius, look!” Aro crooned. “Bella is alive after all, and Alice is here with her! Isn’t that wonderful?” He beamed at Bella and me. “Let us have the story.”

Caius’s sneer was fast, but his thoughts were clear as he glided off toward his chair. We should have destroyed him when we had the chance.

Marcus, by contrast, gave me a very curious look, and as I shifted my attention to him, I felt an almost overwhelming force overtake my body.

It wasn’t attraction, not in the way Marcus had felt it for any of the other vampires in the room. Distinguishing whether the sensation was a pushing or a pulling was almost impossible—the essence of my being seemed to be soldered to Bella’s. As Marcus looked curiously at Bella, I felt my muscles flex as I pressed her as close physically as the mental inventory had seemed to suggest. Her pounding heart became my own, beating right through her back and her damp shirt and through my skin to race in my chest just as it did in hers.

As Marcus crossed the room and extended his hand, I buried my nose again in Bella’s hair. My throat erupted in angry fire as I allowed my senses to become engulfed in Bella’s scent.

She was really here. Her flesh against mine was like fire, even dripping wet as she was. I had tried to spare her the cold by pushing her away from me in the alley, but she, as stubborn as ever, had refused. It made no sense. Even Alice was irked with me—Bella had to recognize the danger I had once again put her in. Her pounding heart was evidence enough of her fear.

And yet she stood, plastered to my side, as I watched as Aro received Marcus’s assessment of the relationship between us. A single eyebrow arched on the ancient face as Aro registered the same immutable connection that I had felt as I had journeyed into the mind of the other vampire.

This connection…and to a human?

Aro’s thoughts drew me back from Marcus’s mind, and I saw Bella through his eyes. Plain was the adjective that seemed to hover most. Average. Ordinary.

A snort of indignation escaped me. Ordinary, indeed. Hadn’t she just made a transoceanic flight and thrown herself into what was nothing short of a den of lions, to come to the rescue of someone who had all but thrown her away?

I didn’t deserve her. And she didn’t deserve this. She was anything but ordinary.

“Thank you, Marcus,” Aro said. “That’s quite interesting.”

Marcus gave a small nod as he drifted toward his own seat. Again as he walked away, I saw the beautiful woman in his memory, this time accompanied by his own assessment of their connection—one that he judged to be not quite as strong as mine with Bella. That I had formed such a bond with a human pained him. In his mind I at once heard his laughter and felt his crushing grief. There was another emotion there as well—envy, I realized with a start. He missed the connection he had had with the woman in his memory. He found Bella not unremarkable, but rather he saw himself in our bond. And he was jealous.

“Amazing, absolutely amazing.” Aro’s voice brought me out of Marcus’s head before I could think more fully about what his jealousy meant for Bella’s chances at survival.

What is amazing? What did he see? Alice’s brow pulled into a tight frown.

“Marcus sees relationships,” I explained loud enough that Bella could hear. “He’s surprised by the intensity of ours.”

“So convenient,” Aro muttered again. “It takes quite a bit to surprise Marcus, I can assure you.”

No, he doesn’t look like someone who is easily surprised, came Alice’s thought. She, too, was cataloguing everything that Aro was saying. She wondered briefly what bond Marcus saw between the two of us. Carlisle had always told us that our family was unique, that there was something about the animal blood that led to much larger covens, to a more peaceful existence than he had known, even while here among those he considered “civilized.” Alice was trying to figure out a way to use that to our advantage.

My muscles contracted again, pulling Bella closer into my body. This did not escape Aro’s attention.

“It’s just so difficult to understand, even now,” he muttered. “How can you stand so close to her like that?”

“It’s not without effort.” I remembered hunting with Carlisle after I’d returned from Denali, imbibing blood that had been unnecessary in any strict sense. I had drunk myself so full that I had nearly felt sick, and then it had still taken almost everything I had to stay next to Bella in Biology the next day.

But now I stood, thirstier than I could ever remember being, and although the incredible scent of Bella’s blood made my throat burn, I could no more think of causing her harm than I could rip myself to pieces. The thoughts of the others in the room swirled, all the minds focused on how badly they wanted to complete the task at which they had judged me a failure.

Aro clucked his tongue. Such a shame, he thought, as my memory surfaced of Bella’s exquisite blood sliding down my throat as I removed the last traces of James’s venom, saving her life. From inside his mind I could feel the venom pooling inside his mouth, and a low growl rumbled from my chest in answer.

“But still—la tua cantante! What a waste.”

“I look at it more as a price,” I shot back.

“A very high price.”

“Opportunity cost.” Except that implied that there was another, less costly option. As Aro looked on in amazement, I pressed my lips to the crown of Bella’s head once more. He had seen my thoughts. He had seen how wasted I had become as I waited out the painful weeks in Brazil. He knew that being apart from Bella was no longer a possibility for me.

“If I hadn’t smelled her through your memories, I wouldn’t have believed the call of anyone’s blood could be so strong,” he mused. “I’ve never felt anything like it myself. Most of us would trade much for such a gift and yet you—”

“Waste it,” I said with him, unable to keep the growl out of my voice.

A blond man swam into existence in Aro’s mind. “They are people, Aro. They have lives—short, yes, but all the more sacred for it. If we are truly better than they, then we ought protect them,” my father said, as Aro looked with him down on the humans moving in the piazza.

Aro smiled as the memory faded and he regarded me again. “Ah, how I miss my friend Carlisle! You remind me of him—only he was not so angry.”

My hand fluttered unconsciously to the pocket of my slacks, encountering the thin rectangle of stiff paper that was one of the only things I had not thrown away in Brazil. My passport, and inside it my credit card, the two documents that had been offered to me the last time I had seen my father.

Edward Carlisle Cullen.

And suddenly it was my mind, not Aro’s, in which Carlisle’s image appeared, his expression strained as he sat at our dinner table more than a year ago. Rosalie sat on one side, and me on the other. It was the first time he had spoken about Bella, the first hint of the hell that was starting to unfold that would lead us all before an almost certain death. We had been afraid about what she had seen then—and now she had seen so much more. Carlisle’s voice came back to me; calm, considered, unwaveringly paternal. “I believe the risk she represents, whether she speaks her suspicions or not, is nothing to the greater risk. If we make exceptions to protect ourselves, we risk something much more important. We risk losing the essence of who we are.”

I sighed deeply. I had been torn then. Rosalie’s idea had made sense—quietly taking Bella’s life in her sleep. She had been right that the humans would have chalked it up to a misdiagnosis, and by then her treating physician would have disappeared into the ether. But it had been my father who’d held his ground against my siblings, allowing Alice’s vision of my love for Bella to come to fruition.

If we made it out of this alive, I would have to thank him.

Looking back up to Aro, I answered, “Carlisle outshines me in many other ways as well.”

Aro chuckled, looking again from Bella to me and back again. “I certainly never thought to see Carlisle bested for self-control of all things, but you put him to shame.”

“Hardly.”

“I am gratified by his success. Your memories of him are quite a gift for me, thought they astonish me exceedingly. I am surprised by how it”—he paused as though considering how high of praise to offer—“pleases me, his success in this unorthodox path he’s chosen. I expected that he would waste, weaken with time. I’d scoffed at his plan to find others who would share his peculiar vision. Yet somehow, I’m happy to be wrong.”

Again I watched my life flash through Aro’s mind. Esme laughing at a joke Carlisle had made. Rosalie beaming up at Emmett on one of their many wedding days. Alice sitting at Jasper’s feet as he played the guitar for her and sang. Then his eyes fell back on Bella at my side. “But your restraint,” he sighed. “I did not know such strength was possible. To inure yourself against such a siren call, not just once but again and again—if I had not felt it myself, I would not have believed. Just remembering how she appeals to you….It makes me thirsty.” Looking me up and down once again, he added, It would be a shame to destroy one so strong.

It seemed that every muscle in my body suddenly became taut at these words. I was ready to throw myself before him or anyone else who made a move at Bella. I would in an instant become the animal I never wanted her to see, the beast capable of sheer destruction, if it meant that she would be safe.

So protective. Aro’s gaze fixed on Bella, but it was Marcus who appeared in his memory—not the stoic being I saw today, but instead in a full-on fury, growling, snarling, screaming. I recognized instantly that he was seeing the moment that Marcus had found out about the loss of the beautiful woman. Then his mind shifted, and he felt again what Marcus had felt when he’d turned his gift on Bella and me, the immutable bond that seemed to have plastered us to each other.

“Don’t be disturbed, I mean her no harm. But I am so curious about one thing in particular.” His eyes seemed to light as he recalled that first day in the cafeteria, and I relived the moment with him. Together we gazed at shy Bella Swan, listening to the incessant external and internal jabber of Jessica Stanley, and we opened our mind to the inane thoughts around the cafeteria. As one we looked again at Bella and heard nothing. She stared back at us, her mind in perfect silence.

“May I?” he asked, and my memory abruptly disappeared.

“Ask her,” I shot back, and hoped that she would turn him down.

“Of course, how rude of me!” He turned toward Bella. “Bella, I’m fascinated that you are the one exception to Edward’s impressive talent—so very interesting that such a thing should occur! And I was wondering, since our talents are similar in many ways, if you would be so kind as to allow me to try—to see if you are an exception for me, as well?”

Bella’s heart sped, and her muscles contracted, making her solid beneath my arm. For a moment, I considered what might happen if it did work. I was mostly sure that it would not, but even if it did, she wouldn’t be harmed—and I realized with a start that if Aro could read Bella’s mind, I would be privy to it for the first time ever.

I found myself nodding.

Bella raised a shaking hand and Aro glided to her, a confident smile on his face. He pressed his hand to hers, and we both waited.

Nothing happened.

A smile spread across my face as I heard Aro’s mind stumble over itself. It can’t be. A human? Amazing. Absolutely amazing.

His hand dropped back to his side a moment later. “So very interesting,” he said, and I did my best to bury the smug smile that threatened at the edges of my lips.

Aro’s eyes danced back and forth, passing over Alice, then me, then Bella. Powerful, he repeated to himself, and Jasper appeared in his mind as well. And Bella was added, her skin white, her eyes crimson—then he shook his head and the images disappeared.

“A first,” he muttered. “I wonder if she is immune to our other talents…Jane, dear?”

“No!” The word ripped from my chest, and Alice’s arm was around my bicep before I had a chance to move forward. In her mind I saw myself lunge at Jane, and the room erupted in a fury as more than a dozen of the guard immediately attacked, scattering my limbs across the floor within seconds.

I yanked my arm from her grip and bared my teeth at Aro, even as Jane glided jovially toward him. Felix moved with her. Perhaps now, he thought, assessing my snarling demeanor, but Aro gave him one tiny glance and he retreated.

“Yes, Master?” Jane’s voice seemed completely innocent.

“I was wondering, my dear one, if Bella is immune to you.

The thrumming of Bella’s heart increased. She had no idea what Jane could do. Even I had only a faint idea, from Jasper’s memories of the southern wars.

But I knew enough.

“Don’t!” my sister’s voice rang out as I lunged.

And then I was on fire.

Every neuron in my body was firing at once, sending only the message pain…pain…pain. The fire threw me to the floor and consumed me, licking at me from my arteries to my capillaries, trying to reduce my bones to cinder. I wanted to die. The others could attack me now, rip me to pieces, and it would be welcome. The fire of my change, of my father’s venom burning through my fragile human body, would feel as comfortable as bed of pillows compared to this. My body jerked out of my control on the stone floor.

But even through the pain, I recognized Bella, her own limbs flailing as Alice held her firmly. She screamed out for Jane to stop, and I clamped my jaw. I would not let her know the pain I was in. Instead I concentrated on her, letting her scent engulf me and its sweetness purify me from the inside out. These two things battled in my body—Bella and Jane, the most good of good and the evilest of evils—until I heard the word “Jane” and suddenly all was still.

The room was spinning as I sat up, and I shook my head. It was no wonder the brothers were so assured of their every victory—for creatures that never experienced disorientation, the sensation was doubly confusing.

“He’s fine,” I heard Alice whisper as I got to my feet.

Jane’s expression was fixed on Bella where she was imprisoned in Alice’s arms—had she tried to save me?—and my stomach dropped as I turned to face her. Bella was simply staring at me, her brow furrowed with worry. I glanced back at Jane, then back to Bella, and my body relaxed. Jane couldn’t penetrate Bella’s mind, either.

I touched Alice’s arm and she released Bella back to me. Her heart again beat against my chest and my throat protested once more to the call of her scent.

Aro laughed. “This is wonderful!”

I growled and Jane hissed, moving forward as Aro’s hand shot out. No need, he thought.

“Don’t be put out, dear one,” he said comfortingly. “She confounds us all.” And what an asset she would be as one of us. Turning to me, he added, “You’re very brave, Edward, to endure in silence. I asked Jane to do that to me once—just out of curiosity.” For a moment we both recalled the intense pain, and I heard Aro shriek…then he quickly shifted his mind away.

“So what do we do with you now?” he murmured, more to himself than to us.

You let us leave, came my sister’s answer. Jasper’s face floated in her mind. Bella began to shake furiously, and my body stiffened as I pulled her closer.

“I don’t suppose there’s any chance that you’ve changed your mind? Your talent would be an excellent addition to our little company.”

He isn’t serious.

Allow him to join us?

What would we feed him? Cattle?

I winced as around me the mental voices began to hum, and for a moment, I squeezed my eyes closed to help me shut them out. Then I answered Aro carefully.

“I’d rather not.”

Then the other? “Alice? Would you perhaps be interested in joining with us?” As a pair they would be magnificent, but even alone she would be invaluable.

My sister shook her head, her eyes narrowed. “No, thank you.”

“And you, Bella?”

Bella? He couldn’t be serious. Turn her and keep her? Was that what this was going to come to? A year of protecting her from the evils of my kind, tearing myself apart to keep her safe, and it would all be thrown down the drain for her to join the worst of our kind.

Across the room, Caius hissed as he rose from his seat. “What?” he growled.

“Caius, surely you see the potential.” Aro waved his hand in Bella’s direction. “I haven’t seen a prospective talent so promising since we found Jane and Alec. Can you imagine the possibilities when she is one of us?”

The white-haired vampire resumed his seat with a resigned growl, but in his head I caught his wordless agreement.

Aro’s eyes flickered from Caius back to Bella. He raised his eyebrows. It’s quite a high compliment I’ve paid you, human, he thought.

My hand closed on Bella’s hip, unconsciously holding her back. Would she join them? I knew that what Bella wanted more than anything was immortality. How often had we spoken of it in the summer? I remembered her angry tears on prom night, as she sat beside me in the Vanquish, frustrated that she was not being brought to her death.

She didn’t understand what she would be giving up. I joked about her not having a sense for self-preservation, but it was no joke in the face of her desire to be changed. She really didn’t understand how precious her life was and, moreover, how precious it was to me.

And now Aro was offering her what I had refused her again and again. The beauty she thought she didn’t already possess; the immortality that would keep her near us, a chance at this thing she’d coveted for so long.

The air seemed to still, save for the low rumbling in my chest. I could hear the thoughts rolling through the room but I ignored them, focusing only on Bella as the time moved slowly forward.

At last she spoke, in a high, frightened voice.

“No, thank you.”

My eyes closed in relief. There was hope, then. But what it meant, I wasn’t sure. Did she no longer wish to be turned? Was she simply too frightened to admit this in front of Aro?

Or was it even possible, after all this, that she wanted to be with me?

Sad. I would have enjoyed them all, Aro thought, tearing my attention away from Bella. “That’s unfortunate,” he said. “Such a waste.”

A waste. A rush of fear flooded my body, as once again smiles appeared on the faces around us. In the minds of the others I saw myself ripped to pieces as Alice screamed, and then Aro himself descending on Bella’s trembling body…

“Join or die, is that it? I suspected as much when we were brought into this room.”

As the words came out of my mouth, however, Carlisle’s voice hit me from nowhere. It had been not long ago, when he and I had unpacked his study together in our new home in Forks. He hung the Solomina painting in its usual place in the center of the wall, and as we gazed at it, he had gotten to talking about Aro again. “He always thought he was fair,” my father had said. “It was the point on which he most prided himself. I set him on edge because I questioned his biases.”

The memory played in a fraction of a second, and suddenly I saw the way.

Nicely done, Edward, came Alice’s delighted reply, as the image of her in Jasper’s arms wavered in her mind for a brief moment. It wasn’t for certain, but it was there. A possible outcome.

Nodding to my sister, I chose my next words carefully.

“So much for your laws.”

Our laws? Aro blinked a few times, replaying my words in his head. Join or die, is that it? “Of course not,” he answered. “We were already convened here, Edward, awaiting Heidi’s return. Not for you.”

A growl erupted from across the room. He’s going to let them go? “Aro,” Caius hissed. “The law claims them.” She is human!

“How so?” I shot back. Forcing him to speak his complaint would let me argue my side, and if we could argue, then there was a chance…

Jasper’s image became clearer. Alice smiled.

“She knows too much,” he went on. “You have exposed our secrets.”

He had taken the bait.

“There are a few humans in on your charade here, as well,” I answered.

He smirked. Just as smug as your so-called father. “Yes,” he said, his voice careful, “but when they are no longer useful to us, they will serve to sustain us. That is not your plan for this one. If she betrays our secrets are you prepared to destroy her? I think not.” He shot a very pointed look at my arm, and remembered how he had seen me kiss Bella’s head.

“I wouldn’t—” piped up Bella’s voice from beside me, but Caius cut her off.

“Nor do you intend to make her one of us,” he went on. “Therefore, she is a vulnerability. Though it is true, for this, only her life is forfeit. You may leave if you wish.”

I couldn’t help it. Even though Alice’s vision was telling me we had our way out, my lips still pulled back from my teeth.

“That’s what I thought,” Caius said. He smiled ever so slightly. We will keep the girl.

“Unless…” Aro moved closer. Bella flashed in his mind again, pale-skinned and crimson-eyed. I winced. “Unless you do intend to give her immortality?”

This was the opening I needed. I pressed my lips together as though I was deep in thought.

And I decided firmly to tell Alice to show Aro her vision.

In her mind, Alice stepped forward and placed her hand against Aro’s. The vision of Jasper became solid. My sister gave an almost inaudible squeal.

Looking back at Aro, I answered, “And if I do?”

Well, then, that will do. And then perhaps we can collect you all. “Why, then you would be free to go home and give my regards to my friend Carlisle,” Aro answered buoyantly. Although of course… “But I’m afraid you would have to mean it.” He raised his hand.

Caius let out a little laugh. So much for that, you idiot boy.

I looked down at Bella. I didn’t need to read her mind to know her thoughts. The look in her eyes was desperate, pleading. She wanted so badly for me to take her life from her, as though it meant nothing.

“Mean it,” she whispered. “Please.”

Even in the presence of the most loathsome of our kind, Bella still wanted to be turned to a monster. My face twisted, but before I had a chance to reply, Alice’s feet moved across the floor with a gentle swishing sound. Her hand was raised, as she had seen it in her vision, and a moment later, her palm was pressed to Aro’s.

The thoughts which tumbled out were disjointed and fragmented. I saw Jasper. A diner in Philadelphia. Peter. Bella, looking as though she’d been put through the wringer. Jasper, despondent after an accidental kill. Esme. Emmett. Rosalie’s voice, drifting up from under an engine. Carlisle, laughing at something I’d said. And alongside them emotions—pain, fear, love, happiness, despair.

I looked away, as though averting my gaze would do anything to change this gross violation of privacy. There were emotions and thoughts running through my sister’s mind that she had never shared with me. Private moments with Jasper that she had been careful not to recall in my presence, fears she hadn’t revealed she had. And around it and through it danced the future—many possible ones, some of us on a plane home, her in Jasper’s arms, Bella and I together.

And then, crystal clear, if anything, even more solid than I’d ever seen it, the image of Bella, her skin the icy white, her eyes crimson, with her arms around my sister. They were laughing…

And so was Aro. He looked up as he removed his hand from Alice’s. “That was fascinating,” he exclaimed.

“I’m glad you enjoyed it,” replied my sister flatly.

A clairvoyant. And she is in Carlisle’s coven… “To see the things you’ve seen,” he mused. “Especially the ones that haven’t happened yet!”

“But that will.” The image of a newborn Bella came to both Alice’s and Aro’s minds at once.

“Yes, yes, it’s quite determined. Certainly there’s no problem.” And then there will be four. Aro’s lips pursed in thought a moment.

That’s it? He sees one thing from the little girl, and that’s enough? A low growl emanated from Caius. “Aro…” he began.

“Dear Caius, do not fret,” Aro responded, turning and smiling at him. “Think of the possibilities! They do not join us today, but we can always hope for the future. Imagine the joy young Alice alone would bring to our little household.” He beamed at my sister. Such a useful gift. And combined with Edward’s

“Besides,” he added, fixing his eyes on me. “I’m so terribly curious to see how Bella turns out.”

Bella looked extremely pained. I wanted to hold her close, kiss her again, bury my face in her hair and tell her that everything was going to be all right, whisper to her what Alice had seen.

Instead I settled for bringing her slightly closer to my body as I asked, “Then are we free to go now?”

“Yes, yes. But please visit again. It’s been absolutely enthralling!”

Does he think he invited us for tea? Alice’s lip curled.

“And we will visit you as well,” came Caius’s voice. “To be sure that you follow through on your side. Were I you, I would not delay too long. We do not offer second chances.” Don’t think we’re finished with you.

I appeared in the minds of at least four of the guard, each one imagining a different limb being ripped from my body. My eyes landed on Demetri, who was relishing the vision of watching my severed head fly into a bonfire. They would use him to find us, but as long as we hid Bella and her untouchable mind…I clamped my jaw tight to stifle the laughter and nodded once.

They would never know what hit them.

Caius smirked, drifting back toward Marcus, and I shifted my gaze to the other man. He had watched the whole proceeding with perfect disinterest, or so it had seemed. But as I turned my focus away from Aro and Caius, I found him still sitting, contemplating the intense pull he felt between me and Bella. Again the beautiful woman appeared in his head, then, for a fraction of a second, his eyes fixed on me.

Good luck.

I stared as Marcus settled back into his chair, the same bored look sliding over his face.

“Ah, Felix,” Aro’s voice rose, pulling me back from Marcus’s mind. “Heidi will be here at any moment. Patience.”

Heidi. Carlisle had mentioned her to me. She was the one responsible for the Volturi’s quiet existence here in the middle of the city, the one who gathered their food, as it were. If she was on her way…

“In that case,” I said quietly, “perhaps we’d better leave sooner, rather than later.”

Yes. She may not be my singer, but… “Yes. That’s a good idea. Accidents do happen. Please wait below until after dark, though, if you don’t mind.”

“Of course,” I answered, and I felt Bella’s body contract into mine.

“And here.” Aro beckoned Felix forward, and in a swift motion the large man’s cloak was off his body and flying toward me. “Take this. You’re a little conspicuous.”

I caught it with a single hand and put it on.

See, and it’s very becoming. Again the image surfaced of me, Alice, and now Bella, cloaked in the dark charcoal of the closest of the guard. “It suits you,” he sighed.

I almost began to laugh, but swallowed it down as I caught the scent of humans. Several dozen of them, headed down the hall. I threw a quick look over my shoulder, but they weren’t visible.

Yet.

“Thank you, Aro,” I said tersely, my feet turning toward the door of their own accord. “We’ll wait below.” I turned Bella away.

“Goodbye, young friends,” Aro answered. I hope to see you soon.

I rolled my eyes as Demetri stepped in front of us, gesturing toward the door.

“Let’s go,” I whispered to Bella. She was still trembling slightly as I held her warm body against mine, and I began to tug her along as fast as I could.

“Not fast enough,” Alice muttered.

She was right. Before we made it out of the antechamber, the door slid open, and in pressed several dozen humans, all exclaiming loudly over the ornate decoration, the medieval architecture, the perfect preservation. Out of instinct, my hand found the back of Bella’s head, and I pressed her face to my chest, and rushed her through a tiny break in the crowd. Alice followed hot on my heels. The wool of the cloak became damp as Bella’s eyes grew wet and spilled over.

She had realized what was happening.

“Shh, shh, shh,” I heard myself repeating over and over, as I tried to drown out Aro’s hearty greeting. Demetri and Heidi greeted each other in the hallway, but I paid attention only to Bella. She quivered against my breastbone, her tears flowing freely down my chest. I pulled her as fast as I could, but we didn’t make it out of the hallway before the room behind us erupted into screams.

Shoving Bella into the reception area ahead of me, I slammed the door behind us. I could still hear every sound, but it would block the noise out well enough for Bella.

“Do not leave until dark,” Demetri commanded, and then with a swish of his cloak, he was gone.

I clutched Bella to my frame. She was shaking so hard her teeth chattered, and low moans rumbled from her chest into mine.

“Are you all right?” I asked stupidly.

“You’d better make her sit before she falls,” Alice answered for her. “She’s going to pieces.”

Bella’s moans had dissolved into a strange, keening wail. I continued to shush her as I pulled her across the room to the couch.

“I think she’s having hysterics. Maybe you should slap her.”

I shot a look that I hoped was daggers at my sister as I pulled Bella into my lap. Her clothes were still wet—I had figured out that she’d run through the fountain in the middle of the square. I couldn’t keep her as warm as I wanted to, but I would do my very best. I opened the cloak and wrapped one side of it around her, keeping one layer of cloth between my cold chest and her quaking body.

“It’s all right, you’re safe,” I chanted to her, but it was myself I was reminding. She was all right. She was here, in the flesh, lying against me. Her heart beat into my chest, becoming my own, and my body was flooded with her warmth. My throat burned as it hadn’t burned in months as I kissed her hair, her forehead, her cheeks. It was the most welcome sensation I had ever experienced.

“Shh, it’s all right,” I repeated, running a hand down her back and trying to calm her enough to steady her for what would be an almost unbearable wait. Unbearable for her because it would simply be long, and she was so close to these vicious beings who right now were feasting on dozens of people just like her. Unbearable for me because for all I knew, this was all the more time I would get. We would leave here at nightfall, and Alice would figure out some way to get us back to Florence. We would fly back to Washington, and Bella would go back to Charlie. And I would go…where?

Bella’s face buried itself in the folds of the cloak, and I gingerly touched the back of her head. She didn’t flinch from my hand, but was that just because she was too in shock? Alice had brought her—did that mean she would not have come of her own accord? I knew she felt indebted to my family after the incident with James—true to form, she ignored that we put her in danger, and focused only on the rescue. Perhaps she had come only as a favor to my sister. And even if she hadn’t, would she want me back? Truly back in her life, the way I thought I possibly could be? My hand closed against her back as it remembered the feel of my phone as I had cradled it before nearly making the call to book the flight home. The flight home to beg her forgiveness, to admit to my devastating lie. The flight to try to claim my life again.

Her heart raced each time I kissed her forehead, and I held her close, my fingertips re-memorizing the planes of her face, the subtle curve of her shoulder blades, the outlines of her vertebrae. I didn’t know how much longer I would have her, so I would make perfect use of the time I had.

Almost unconsciously, I bent my head down and pressed my lips to the crown of her head, inhaling. The scent which had once driven me nearly to madness was now the only thing that calmed my thoughts. There was so much uncertain still. But I was here, and so was Bella. We were together, and that was all that mattered for now.

Closing my eyes, I pressed my forehead to Bella’s and lost myself in the gentle thrum of her heart.

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§ One Response to 16. La Mia Cantante

  • Sea4Me says:

    But WHY doesn’t he beg her forgiveness now? This is a great chap, but I feel a need to know that critical bit…

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